Positive vs Negative Space In Composition

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I thought I’d talk a little about Positive vs Negative Space in art.  I mentioned negative space in my last post, and I want to explain more fully.

Positive shapes are the objects we see as the subject of paintings, photography, etc.  For example, in this piece below, the green hills and the blue cloud trees are the positive shape.  If you described this piece, you would probably talk about the initial form you recognize:  shape of the hill & tree forms.

Cloud Trees I © Suzanne Augello 2011

However, look again at the shapes in the piece.  Concentrate on the orange and yellow sky areas & notice the shapes that are formed there.  Not only does the tree describe the space of the sky, the sky determines the shape of the tree. Crazy, right?  See the shapes of the orange areas – these shapes are as interesting as the subject itself.  They form the negative space of the piece.

This is how you build interest in the composition. Your negative space determines:

– the shape of your subject

– the flow of your eye

– the mood of your piece

– the emphasis on your subject.  (For example, the hill/tree shape above stands out because of the yellow/orange background – a warm color palette (reds, oranges, yellows) vs a cool color palette (blues, greens, violets).  If the sky area was another blue, the shape wouldn’t come forward or stand out as obviously.)



Here’s another example.  I will use an ordinary house shape.

© Suzanne Augello 2011

Give it a background.

© Suzanne Augello 2011

Are the yellow-green areas interesting?  Not really.

© Suzanne Augello 2011

The roof starts to give your house some life and personality as it curves in the space.  Warp it more.

© Suzanne Augello 2011

Now it is more interesting.  However, the green area is still one big space.  If we broke up the areas by extending the edges off the page:

© Suzanne Augello 2011

Now the yellow-green area is three spaces – the largest one, a medium shape to the left of the composition, and the small window area inside the house that creates a focal point for the picture – the area of highest contrast.

Also, color choice determines the distinctiveness of the shapes.  If we used dark blue instead if the brighter yellow-green, the house would not stand out against the background.

© Suzanne Augello 2011


Use your negative space to draw the positive shape.

Here is my quick sketch of “Cowboy and Two Women” by Emery Clarke (an American Illustrator).  My focus is the composition not the detail.

Emery Clarke, copy of master © Suzanne Augello 2011

While this piece might have been difficult to sketch just by observing the forms of the figures, I used the white space around the standing man and woman as my guide. Once I drew that white space, the figures magically appeared.


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